A fact-based review of the myths about undocumented immigration in the United States
Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past months, you know that Donald John Trump has built much of his candidacy for the presidency upon the idea that there is an immigration “crisis.” Therefore, he claims, we need to “build a great, great wall on our southern border” to keep illegal immigrants out of the country and we need to deport over 11 million undocumented people, as well.
But there is no such crisis. Not only is there no illegal immigrant crisis, but the data to prove this is particularly easy to find — if you bother to look for it. Let’s review some common myths about illegal immigration then and see what the facts are — backed by data.
1. “People are pouring across our borders unabated.”
That’s a direct quote by Trump and it’s also completely false. Illegal immigration is actually experiencing negative growth. In fact, it’s not only in decline, but the number of undocumented people living in the United States is at its lowest point since 2003. Additionally, the number of illegal immigrants here has fallen every year since 2008. Yes, there may be 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States now, but in 2007, there were 12.2 million. One study actually put that number below 11 million and at 10.9 million for the first time since 2004.
So there’s no invasion. There’s no crisis. Illegal immigration is demonstrably in decline. But you’d never guess this listening to Donald Trump.
It’s worth highlighting, too, then that we don’t have “hordes” or “swarms” of illegal immigrants crowding our borders either. In fact, people have long used such terms because they trigger images of cockroaches and other insects, a sadly effective trick of language employed to dehumanize other human beings. In the 1800s, critics of Jewish immigrants spoke of “unassimilable immigrant hordes.” Similarly, in 1912, the Protestant pastor A. E. Patton wrote the following:
For a real American to visit Ellis Island, and there look upon the Jewish hordes, ignorant of all patriotism, filthy, vermin-infested, stealthy and furtive in manner, too lazy to enter into real labor, too cowardly to face frontier life, too lazy to work as every American farmer has to work, too filthy to adopt ideals of cleanliness from the start, too bigoted to surrender any racial traditions or to absorb any true Americanisms, for a real American to see those items of filth, greedy, never patriotic stream flowing in to pollute all that has made America as good as she is–is to awaken in his thoughtful mind desires to check and lessen this source of pollution.
When you hear people refer to immigrants as “hordes” and “swarms,” that’s the sort of virulent prejudice they’re tapping into.
2. “Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”
That’s another direct quote from Trump. Of course, this following quote has become his most notorious:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
If that was his best-known foray into xenophobia, you should know he’s been making statements like this repeatedly. Furthermore, one of the most appalling aspects of the Republican convention was the way its planners used the grieving families of murder victims to repeatedly generalize that illegal immigrants are murderous criminals. This sort of conflation of immigrant and violent crime is as old as immigration itself but that doesn’t stop it from being, well, bigotry, not to put too fine a point on it.
The truth? As detailed in this Wall Street Journal piece, “immigrants — regardless of nationality or legal status — are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or to be incarcerated.” Furthermore, this study by the American Immigration Council shows that “for every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants.” Another study by the Council shows that when researchers separate undocumented immigrants from documented workers, they found, as USA Today’s Alan Gomez explains, “undocumented immigrants were less likely to commit violent crimes than their native-born neighbors.”
In fact, the Council concluded, “Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails. But the terminological sleight-of-hand inherent in the government’s definition of ‘criminal alien’ perpetuates and exacerbates the fallacy of a link between immigration and crime.”
Important to note: Even if the rate of violent crime among illegal immigrants is higher in some locations, that doesn’t disprove the data showing the rate is lower overall. In fact, that rate in some larger cities has been radically exaggerated by right-wing web sites and their contributors. (And, you’ll note, never corrected.) That conflation of illegal immigrants equals violent criminals we saw at the GOP Convention then was myth-making of the highest order. Non-factual propaganda devised purely to generate fear among American voters.
3. We’re not deporting enough illegal immigrants
Fact: The number deportations of illegal immigrants grew significantly under President Obama. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data actually shows that more people have been deported each year under Obama than under any previous President. For example, DHS deported 438,421 people in 2013. The previous record was 358,886 within the fiscal year of George W. Bush’s last year in office. Obama did issue an executive order to slow these deportations but it was suspended by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen.
4. Immigrants are stealing our jobs
One of the most egregious arguments used to vilify illegal immigrants is that they’re stealing jobs from American citizens. There are two problems with this argument. First, it ignores that there are two operators in this equation: The immigrant laborer and the business hiring him or her. In other words, it takes two to tango. American farms and businesses knowingly hire these laborers. In fact, they go out of their way to do so. Plainly, U.S. businesses are enticing immigrants to come here without documentation because they’re offering them employment. But you won’t hear Trump nor those railing the loudest against illegal immigration ever mention the business side of this equation.
Secondly, though economists may vary in their evaluation of the impact of immigrants on the job market and wages, economists on both sides of the political divide have typically concluded that immigrant labor benefits the economy and does not take jobs from U.S. citizens or “native workers.” Instead, they do very different jobs. You’ll sometimes hear proponents of immigrant labor somewhat blithely put it this way: “They do jobs Americans don’t want to do.” Additionally, economists argue, immigrants are taking a growing number of jobs as native workers move on to higher-skilled jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 4.6 million such jobs, which don’t require a college degree may be added to the market by 2022. An additional 4.2 million jobs are projected, which do not require a high school diploma. These include personal care and home health aide jobs.
5. ISIS terrorists have been sneaking across the Mexican/United States border
A number of pundits have claimed that ISIS terrorists have been sneaking across the border by “the dozens” or that ISIS is present in Mexico. Politifact has repeatedly rated these claims anywhere from “False” to “Mostly False” to “Pants on Fire.”
It bears pointing out, however, that this fear is typically raised about the Mexican border and not the Canadian one. One doesn’t have to ponder too long to conclude why this fear is typically directed towards the south but not the north.
These myths are some of the most popular ones and they’re pretty easily dismissed. Yet Trump and many other political figures, who should know better continue to repeat them. The evidence against them is so easily discovered that you have to wonder is Trump willfully ignorant on this issue? Or is he simply, repeatedly lying about it?
You also have to ask why the media hasn’t been repeatedly confronting him with these facts every time he repeats the same myths over and over and over again.
One final thing to consider about “illegal immigration” in the United States: It’s really a relatively recent and invented phenomenon. How’s that? Well, as discussed in this excellent On the Media piece, until 1965, we were admitting 50,000 Mexicans per year. That year, though, Congress scrapped the existing visa system —with the good intention of limiting discrimination against Asians and Africans —and limited all countries to 20,000 visas per year. So, as Princeton sociology professor Doug Massey points out, although we share 2000 miles of border with Mexico and they have a population of 130 million and they are our second-largest trading partner, Mexico gets the same number of visas as the most remote countries on the planet.
So we created this problem and we haven’t done enough yet to alleviate it. And in 2016, unfortunately, some of people’s most deep-seated resentments and firmly held prejudices are preventing us from making any progress on the issue.
And Donald Trump isn’t helping.
Updated 8/14/16 with additional information showing lower violent crime rates among undocumented immigrants
- Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Migration Edition (At Home) — On the Media, 29 July 2016
- Immigrants in the U.S. illegally have declined to the lowest level in over a decade — L.A. Times, 20 January 2016
- The Mythical Connection Between Immigrants and Crime — The Wall Street Journal, 14 July 2015
- Why Is the Undocumented-Immigrant Population Dropping? — The Atlantic, 25 January 2016
This piece first appeared on Medium.com.
Follow Robert Stribley on Twitter